Friday, 25 February 2011

Astronomy 1: Stars, Planets and Moons

Following last night's visit to Keele Observatory, I thought it might be helpful to cover some of the basics of astronomy, and then move onto some more detailed topics.  Everybody's got to start somewhere, so I figure it's best to start with home, and move on from there.

The Earth spins on its own axis, taking one day to complete one revolution (one full turn).  This gives us day and night.

The Earth orbits (goes around) the Sun, going around the Sun in one year.  One year is 365.25 days.

Stars:  Stars are huge (very, very big) balls of gas that are carrying out nuclear reactions.  It might be easier to think of a star as an enormous nuclear reactor, constantly going out of control.  The Sun is a star.

Planets:  Planets are smaller balls of rock or gas that go around stars.  There are nine planets that go around our star, the Sun.  The nine planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (going in order from nearest to the Sun to furthest away).  

Moons:  Moons are smaller than planets, and go around planets in their own orbits.  Our Moon goes around the Earth in just under 28 days; some planets (such as Mercury and Venus) have no moons, while other planets (such as Jupiter and Saturn) have over 10 moons each.

One of the basic principles of astronomy is that smaller (lighter) objects go around larger (heavier) objects, and that's all due to gravity.  Galileo, who was one of the first people to make serious use of a telescope, saw Jupiter and four of its moons going around it, and started to wonder if the Earth goes around the Sun.  It wasn't a popular theory at the time, but a serious of obe

Our star, and its nine planets, are all part of a bigger group of stars (about 10 billion stars, roughly) that are all held together by gravity, in a group called a galaxy.  Our galaxy is called the Milky Way.  It's called the Milky Way because, if and when you can see the faint stars in our galaxy in the sky, they look like a milky cloud stretching across the sky.  Almost all of the stars that we can see in the night sky are in our galaxy.  Our nearest neighbouring galaxy is called Andromeda, and in the right conditions, it can be seen without a telescope or binoculars.

Why don't the planets crash into each other?
Because they're all going around the Sun at different distances.  Mercury is closest to the Sun, and completes one orbit in 88 Earth days, while Pluto, which is furthest away from the Sun, takes 220 times longer than the Earth to go around the Sun.

What is a light year?
A light year is a measurement of distance, and it's equal to the total distance that a ray of light would travel in a year.  The speed of light is 300,000,000 metres per second, or 186,000 miles per second, and there are 31 million seconds in a year (60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 365.25 days in a year).  This means that in 31 million seconds, light would travel 9,467,280,000,000,000 metres, or 9,467,280,000,000 kilometres.  The distances in space are so far, that we need a meaningful measurement that we can use to compare distances between objects.  

The Sun's nearest neighbour is called Proxima Centauri ("proxima" meaning "close") and that's 4.22 light years away.  This means that light shining from Proxima Centauri takes just over four years to reach us, and that means that we're seeing what it looks like four years ago.  This, it is true, is a very strange situation, and that's because we're used to looking at objects that are much closer, where we can assume that we're seeing things as they are now (because the speed of light is very, very fast, and it takes fractions of a second for the light to travel from the object to our eyes).

I should make it clear that a light year (despite its name) is not a measurement of time, it's a measurement of distance!

In my next post, I'll try and move onto some more specific details, and answer a few questions that I've heard or been asked about astronomy.

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